Looking back on… The Good Dinosaur

The Good Dinosaur (2015)
Directed by: Peter Sohn
Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright
Written by Chris
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As a child growing up in the 90’s and being “old enough to remember ‘Toy Story’ in the cinema”, I’d like to characterize the intense relationship I’ve had with Pixar films as something wholly unique. However, I can lay no claim to Pixar that pretty much every single person on the planet hasn’t also had; almost every film holds a special place in everyone’s hearts, and makes a connection that’s as universal as it is personal.

Up’ was like a diamond piercing into me with the force of a million ex-girlfriends, ‘Inside Out’ worked its way from my brain, through my bloodstream, and into my heart; leaving a coronary bomb as deadly as a McDonald’s salad. When it came to ‘The Good Dinosaur’, the flesh surrounding my heart was merely prodded like a USB stick trying to enter a plug socket.

It’s unmistakably a disappointment when compared to the incredible run Pixar have had. It certainly doesn’t deserve the legendary status in animation utopia they’ve achieved with the likes of ‘Toy Story’ and ‘Monsters, Inc.’. It falls somewhere closer to animation purgatory and the likes of ‘Puss in Boots’ and ‘Atlantis: The Lost Empire’. It’s the kind of film that would get the medal for “taking part”. However, when they’ve produced a lifetime’s worth of exceptional work, and the very infrequent stinker (we’re all looking at you, ‘Cars 2’) it’s mysterious that they’d produce something so completely on the fence.

Problems in ‘The Good Dinosaur’s production began 4 years in. Its two writers were swapped out for not being able to create a satisfactory third act, and a team of at least 4 writers, with script additions from Pixar greats Lee Unkrich and John Lasseter, were brought in to even out the cracks. In that time, the idea of a dinosaur society was heavily diluted, characters were altered, and all of the voice cast except Frances McDormand were replaced. It forced Pixar to delay the production by over a year and to lay off 67 of its employees.

It’s obvious what remained from the script, and what was directly scrapped. The farm the dinosaurs own at the start of the film is an obvious remnant of the original ‘dinosaur society’ script. The character of Spot behaving like a dog came from the original director, Bob Peterson’s original pitch, but was reintroduced by its eventual director, Peter Sohn.

What all of this meant was that what we got was never as fully realised or grounded as its creators had hoped for – whether they admit it or not. We get at least 3 different ideas, inelegantly crammed together, to form something okay at best. It’s like having a Neapolitan ice cream after it’s melted; you’re left with a yellowy brown sludge that tastes sweet, but nothing like the individual strawberry you hoped for.

The first of the three great flavours of ideas (we’ll call this one the vanilla) takes place in an alternative reality where the comet that killed the dinosaurs passed right by the earth. Dinosaurs remain kings of the land, and humans, at this point, are a new occurrence, treated like pests rather than the (obvious) super species destined to rule the earth and enslave all other lifeforms in their tyrannical tyrannosaur-less rule. A family of Apatosaurus’ (they’re basically diplodocus’s, brachiosaurus’s, or whatever long necked herbivore you immediately identify with – dinosaur giraffes, if you will) live a peaceful life, farming corn on the cobs in their very human-like homestead. The youngest Apatosaurus child is Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) who happens to be the smallest and most cowardly. After he becomes trapped in a landslide, he has to make his way back to his family, and prove himself as an effective member of the family.

The second idea (this one’s the chocolate) concerns Arlo’s journey home and the wild human child he meets and names Spot (Jack Bright). Despite their differences, they both prove to compliment each other’s character and develop a friendship that provides the majority of the film’s heart.

The third idea (finally onto strawberry) occupies itself within the side characters and landscape. It’s a tale of old Americana, with dinosaurs! With T-Rex cowboys herding buffalo, redneck velociraptors, sprawling fields and rushing waterfalls. It’s as optically impressive as Yellowstone national park, yet as ill-fitting as a T-Rex riding a horse.

To the film’s credit, the ideas overlap with relative ease, on its surface – Arlo’s growth as a character comes from his interactions with the wider world, and his friendship with Spot grows with his need to change. The clash of ideas does result in some peculiarly interesting ideas in the form of a paranoid triceratops-type-thing, and one genuinely shocking scene where Spot rips the head off of a giant insect. But it’s all too easy to see the thread-bares in a film that had to strive to establish a flow at all.

The title, for one, was supposed to be “deceptively simple” and was described as having “more meaning than it seems” from its director. Except, that meaning has become lost within a well of good intentions and interesting ideas. Nothing about Arlo distinguishes him as particularly ‘good’, and the majority of the other dinosaurs remain outside of an ethical spectrum – in this film and in others. Sure, the T-Rex in ‘Jurassic Park’ did eat a man on the toilet, but it was hungry. If you see a good looking meal sitting on the toilet, you don’t think about the ethical implications, you chow down at the first chance you get…if you’re a dinosaur, that is.

Ethical toilet misrepresentation dilemma aside, the biggest flaw in ‘The Good Dinosaur’ is that in no way does it make any use of the fact its characters are dinosaurs. You could replace every single character with anthropomorphic spoons and you’d get the same result. Instead of corn cobs, the spoons farm yoghurt, and instead of a landslide, their land is ravaged by chocolate milk. The main spoon teams up with a wild fork, and they meet some cowboy sporks. You get the idea. Just one dinosaur joke would give enough reason for this to be centered on dinosaurs rather than the Oscar-worthy spoon idea. Something about a T-Rex struggling, on account of their small arms would be enough. Even ‘Jurassic Park’ had that awful “do-you-think-he-saurus” joke.

Whilst it’s inevitably a long stretch away from Pixar at their best, and every emotional moment is softened by its varying direction, the only real disappointment from ‘The Good Dinosaur’ is that it comes from a company who have proven they can give us so much more. The scenery and landscape show off the most realistic animation that has ever been seen, and within those breezy hills and knotty pines, there’s a sense of ease that compliments a familiar tale of unexpected friendship and overcoming your weaknesses.

For all the complaints I have with ‘The Good Dinosaur’ I can’t deny that it sauntered by. Films with as hellish a production as this are rarely so easy-going. Even if it doesn’t attest to Pixar’s greatness, it’s certainly testament to their hard work and passion for storytelling that they came out of the fire this unscathed.

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